Too Busy to Shine

“You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” – Matthew 5:14-16

Although there are many exceptions, the Christian Church does not seem to fulfill this passage very well today. Generally speaking, Christians are not a light. We do not shine.

There is an increasing amount of evidence consistent with this point. For example, one recent laboratory study found that individuals who believed in God and the Bible exhibited more violence than those who did not. Research by the Barna Group has shown that individuals reporting that they are “born-again Christians” report divorcing more often than Atheists and Agnostics. Perhaps most interestingly, as reported in the book “UnChristian,” when 16-29 year-olds recently were asked to rate the extent to which Christians express various positive and negative characteristics, respondents most often agreed with the terms “anti-homosexual,” “judgmental,” and “hypocritical.” Only 16% of non-Christians survey respondents agreed “a lot” that Christians “consistently show love for other people.”

There likely are many reasons why Christians today do not shine. As someone mostly acquainted with psychological research on topics such as religion, culture, and well-being, I am increasingly convinced that one reason why American Christians, in particular, do not shine as much as we otherwise might has to do with the effects of toxic and unbalanced busyness in our lives.

In a classic study now often referred to as “the good Samaritan study,” researchers at Princeton University examined how busyness might influence the likelihood that seminarians might help a bystander. Specifically, after the seminarians completed some initial questionnaires, they were told to go to another building on campus to give a speech (ironically, sometimes, on the parable of the good Samaritan). Some of the seminarians were told that they were late for the speech; others were told that they had a few minutes to spare. Then, on the way, the seminarians encountered a man slumped in an alleyway who appeared to need help. Seminarians who were most rushed were four times less likely to help the man than seminarians who were least rushed.

In another study relevant to this issue, researchers investigated the effects of an unbalanced lifestyle on individuals’ quality of life. Participants in this study were told to avoid anything non-instrumental or playful from the time they woke up until at least 9:00 p.m. After 48 hours, participants started reporting psychological symptoms such as restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating, irritability, and muscle tension. After two days, the study actually needed to be called off in order to protect the welfare of the participants.

Obviously, busyness need not be all bad. After all, “an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” In fact, many of items on our “to do” lists actually may be very good, reflections of the priorities of our faith. And, some individuals need to be busy. For instance, some people have to do whatever is necessary to meet their family’s basic needs for adequate food, shelter, safety, and health. However, there is a certain point in every person’s life where busyness can be toxic and unbalanced. Indeed, toxic and unbalanced busyness may be undermining the functioning of many adults, children, couples, and families in this culture. In this way, the Chinese characters that represent “busyness” take on a prophetic quality, representing “heart” and “killing.”

One aspect of living in the United States is that we often are pressured or even encouraged to be busy. In fact, whereas the average workweek in much of Europe is about 35-40 hours per week, the average workweek in the United States is about 46 hours per week, with over 50% reporting that they work over 50 hours per week. Kids also are increasingly busy, and often engage in multiple extracurricular activities at one time.

These trends appear to be increasingly evident. For example, Americans’ work load is increasing more than any developed country in the world. Also, studies suggest that children now spend approximately eight fewer hours per week in free, unstructured, and spontaneous play than they did two decades ago.

To some extent, busyness is culturally sanctioned in the United States, and beyond individuals’ control. Employees often are expected to produce as much as possible by their employers, particularly in these difficult economic times. As a result, individuals are pressured to work long hours. Many Americans do not even take the vacation and personal days granted them, potentially for fear of disappointing employers and suffering the adverse consequences. Children increasingly are encouraged to achieve at early ages by schools concerned about losing federal funding for poor performance. In fact, more than 30,000 schools in the United States have eliminated recess in an attempt to boost early academic performance.

Another aspect of our culture that influences busyness is the “American Dream,” which encourages everyone to accomplish as much as possible, in as many domains of life as possible. The American Dream is at least partially predicated on the idea that various external markers of achievement or status determine individuals’ position on a hypothetical social hierarchy. Consistent with this, cross-cultural research shows that Americans rank #1 in the world in the motivation to achieve and #2 in the motivation for power.

Ironically, a variety of studies suggests that the happiness many individuals ultimately seek through pursuit of the American Dream may elude them. For instance, several studies conducted at the University of Rochester show that the importance individuals ascribe to financial success, power, physical attractiveness, and social recognition predicts psychological symptoms of distress. Other studies show that materialism predicts dissatisfaction. Furthermore, research suggests that daily happiness does not improve after family income reaches $75,000 per year. In fact, even though individuals often report they believe they would be happier with more money, research shows that even lottery winners tend to return to previous levels of happiness after the afterglow of their newfound wealth subsides.

Although some factors that influence busyness in this culture are beyond our control, some are not. For example, individuals control how they spend their time and how much they internalize the ideals of different worldviews. Thus, individuals can make choices to think and act differently. Below follow 10 suggestions for managing the effects of busyness in your life.

  1. Become increasingly aware of the effects of busyness in your life. Once you realize how busyness may be having an adverse effect, it will be easier to change your lifestyle.
  2. Reflect on the connection between your faith and your lifestyle. The many examples of Jesus withdrawing into nature to pray (for example, Mark 1:29) and the story of Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42) may be good starting points.
  3. Rather than trying to accomplish and accumulate as much as possible, consider how much is enough. Always seeking more is a recipe for toxic and unbalanced business.
  4. Seek greater simplicity in your schedule by eliminating activities that are neither urgent nor important. Every time you say “no,” you may be saying “yes” to something more important. For help with time management, you might consult “First Things First,” by Stephen Covey.
  5. Consider fasting from technology (such as your cell phone or the internet) or media (such as television) at least once per week. Many people might realize that they actually have much more time than they think when they eliminate excessive use of technology and media. Commit to finding ways to use technology and the media, rather than having them use you.
  6. Find time everyday to center yourself in some meaningful way, connect with someone important to you, and enjoy an activity for its own sake. These activities have great potential for renewal.
  7. If you are not already doing so, seek to keep a weekly Sabbath. On this day, concentrate fully on worship, rest, relationships, and play. If you have a hard time carving out an entire day for this purpose, consider a modified Sabbath in which you devote at least part of a day to these activities.
  8. Take advantage of the vacation and personal days granted to you at work. Rather than using these days as opportunities to “get things done” at home or to “visit all the sites” on vacation, use at least some of this time for activities that renew you and your relationships with God and others.
  9. Parents would do well to monitor the effects of busyness in their children’s lives as well, and to consider ways to role model and discuss ways to manage busyness with them. The earlier parents do this with their children, the better. One good rule of thumb for parents is to not allow their children to be in more than one extracurricular activity at one time. It is okay for kids to be bored once in a while. Boredom often inspires creativity.
  10. Finally, if any of this seems emotionally difficult, and it seems you have a difficult time letting go of busyness, you might consider the sources from which you are seeking your ultimate worth. To be a follower of Jesus in this culture might mean to challenge the American Dream and the false gods of materialism, accomplishment, and social status, and to replace them with the true God who alone is capable of meeting your deepest needs.

In closing, I am reminded of Henri Nouwen’s’s reflection on his lifestyle:

“More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence. Still, it is not as simple as it seems. My own desire to be useful, to do something significant, or to be part of some impressive project is so strong that soon my time is taken up by meetings, conferences, study groups, and workshops that prevent me from walking the streets. It is difficult not to have plans, not to organize people around an urgent cause, and not to feel that you are working directly for social progress. But I wonder more and more if the first thing shouldn’t be to know people by name, to eat and drink with them, to listen to their stories and tell your own, and to let them know with words, handshakes, and hugs that you do not simply like them, but truly love them.”

Toxic and unbalanced busyness has the potential to darken our light. Not until we are able to manage our busyness and create balanced lifestyles will we be able to shine as we were intended.

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